The Easter Sunday suicide of a Glenelg High School teen has raised long-standing concerns about cyber-bullying, as parents and teachers call on Howard County schools to do more to boost awareness and prevention.
Chaun Hightower, president of the Howard County Council of PTAs, said she doesn't know enough about the circumstances surrounding 15-year-old Grace McComas' death to discuss it. But she believes that cyber-bullying is a pervasive issue and that the district's policy could be strengthened.
"I just feel a profound sense of sadness for the family," Hightower said. "I can't imagine what they're thinking. What I would hope is that something positive comes out of this so we can all learn."
Sherry Llewellyn, a spokeswoman for the Howard County police, said investigators are aware of allegations that the girl was bullied, but she provided no details.
Grace's parents, Chris and Dave McComas of Woodbine, say she was harassed online for months but have provided few details. The McComases said they have not spoken to police since their daughter's death.
The district and the PTA will host an anti-bullying seminar from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. April 26 at the Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia for parents and community advocates. The seminar was planned before Grace's suicide, Hightower said, to educate parents about the constantly changing technology and help them feel less helpless. She said officials also want to help parents engage with the school system about how the groups can work together.
She said the school system's policy gives administrators discretion over how a bully might be punished. Many parents would like to see administrators take stronger, more definitive actions, Hightower said.
Also on April 26, Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University, will hold training sessions for Howard County school counselors, psychologists and staff.
Howard County schools instituted in 2009 a policy against cyber-bullying, harassment and intimidation that calls for educators to take certain steps when bullying occurs on school property, at a school activity or event, or on a school bus. The policy is less clear about bullying elsewhere, though it does call for discipline if an incident disrupts the school day.
District spokeswoman Patti Caplan acknowledged that school officials were aware of a situation involving Grace but she would not say what it was. She cited strict confidentiality rules.
The girl's high school "followed policy to the letter," Caplan said. She declined to say whether disciplinary action was taken against students.
"We work from the perspective of educating and empowering students to stand up to bullying," she said in an email.
Ravens running back Ray Rice is planning an anti-bullying forum in conjunction with Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball. The event, which will be by ticket only, is tentatively scheduled for early May.
Grace's family is expected to participate in the event, Rice's publicist Deb Poquette said. The event was prompted by the girl's suicide and by the death of a second Howard County teen, Poquette said.
Hundreds reached out to the McComas family online and in person Friday for a visitation. Grace's death sparked an online campaign — blue4grace — that encouraged people to wear blue, her favorite color, for the day. Her family was trying to comprehend the power of the Internet to be both the device that caused Grace so much pain and the instrument that "is now lifting us up," her mother said.
Hightower said the line is not clear between school-based bullying and harassment and intimidation on social media after school hours. The April 26 seminar is an opportunity for parents and educators to learn to better address the evolving issue.
"I am not sure we'll ever stop bullying, but the only way we can is for parents to not isolate themselves, to work together and collaborate," Hightower said. "We can learn from each other. Parents will realize they are not alone, because I think they feel alone."
Baltimore Sun reporter Susan Reimer contributed to this article.